Does a lively llama trek sound like fun to you? Such an adventure might just be in your family’s future, but don’t book a flight to the Peruvian Andes quite yet! There’s no need to leave the Finger Lakes Region because we have a workable alternative right in nearby Onondaga County. Woodmansee Farms, operated by John and Dawn Bishop in the forested hills surrounding Tully, began offering llama treks to the public in 2010.
Domesticated in the highlands of South America, the llama has served nobly as a beast of burden for thousands of years. Their fiber was used to make clothing for early Andean civilizations, and the Incas revered them as “silent brothers.” Extinct in North America since the Ice Age, they were reintroduced to the continent just prior to the onset of the 20th century, and now number more than 100,000.
Were it not for a visit to the New York State Fair in 1998, the Bishops might never have joined the ranks of llama owners. John and Patti Conboy of Schoharie, had begun raising llamas and were exhibiting them at the fair. The Bishops stopped by for a look, Dawn took a llama for a walk and the rest is history. “I fell hard for that animal,” laughed Dawn. “From that day on, I wanted a llama!”
“I wasn’t convinced, but Dawn kept the pressure on for the next few years,” said John. “In 2001, I finally broke.”
The Bishops bought their first llama, Morrie, and were prepared to take him home, only to find that llamas require companionship. Who doesn’t? They took along a temporary loaner named Rundycup, but soon both llamas had become permanent members of the family.
In the spring of 2002, the Bishops attended a high-end llama auction in Pennsylvania with the Conboys. “Three days of open bar, food aplenty, orchestra music and llamas presented by women in evening gowns was too much for us,” admits John. “We bought four more.”
Through breeding and additional purchases their herd is now up to 15 (with distinctive names like Telestar, Ebony’s Tornado, and Arapechea). “Like kids and other pets, no two are alike,” explained Dawn. “Each one is very special. For example, Zeus seems to have an ear for music, and Halley is so friendly she immediately approaches any visitor.”
The Bishops have learned a lot in the years since. Llamas are intelligent and gentle by nature and interact very well with humans, even small children. They are very curious, can efficiently forage for food, are inexpensive to maintain, and travel well. A great companion on long treks or hikes, a mature llama can pack 25 to 30 percent of its weight with ease.
“Stories of llamas spitting are highly exaggerated,” said John. “It occurs infrequently, and then only between two llamas in a squabble over food, or if an animal is being mistreated. In general, they are quite timid.”
The llamas don’t seem to mind winter temperatures in upstate New York, as the colder, mountainous regions of South America are their natural habitat. But the Bishops agree, “They really don’t like hiking in deep snow.” The llamas are sheared once each year, in the spring, and fans are used in the barns during the summer months to avoid heat stress.
For several years, the Bishops transported their animals to llama shows, exhibitions where awards are given for an animal’s quality and performance. Eventually, John’s job as a custom homebuilder and Dawn’s work in the Tully school system prevented frequent traveling. Show trips were replaced with llama hikes on their own property with friends, relatives, and even the Boy Scouts. Educational visits were arranged at local schools, with community groups and at a nursing home.
A visit to Colorado and a challenging outing with back-packing llamas in the Rocky Mountains convinced Dawn and John that a similar trekking operation could be done back home. “With a wonderful location to undertake this business,” said Dawn, “it was an ideal opportunity to continue the activities we so enjoyed, and at the same time, educate whole new groups of people about our lovable animals.”
The Bishops’ property is crisscrossed with trails through old- and new-growth forest, mixed hardwood sprinkled with white pine and hemlock. There are deep ravines, rocky creeks, spectacular waterfalls, and an abundance of native wildlife nearby. It’s not unusual to spot deer, turkey or even a beaver during a trek.
A typical trek takes 2 to 3 hours, but Dawn and John will happily plan a visit for interested hikers tailoring it to group size, ages of participants, or specific interests. First comes 15 to 20 minutes of educational information, basic handling techniques, and a chance to meet the llamas up close and personal in the pasture. “People will enjoy the trek more if they know a little bit about and feel comfortable with the llamas,” John explained.
A couple of animals will carry snacks and drinks placed in specifically designed packs for the trip; others will just go along for the walk as the group heads out. The trek itself is a welcome mix of many things, local history and geologic aspects of the area, beautiful vistas and countryside, multiple waterfalls and plenty of good exercise. Along the way there’s time for questions, photos, viewing of old mill sites, rest breaks and snacks at the base of a plunging waterfall.
Last summer, Sue Thomas and her husband Mark joined Dawn and John for their first trek, one that Sue describes as, “a little like a pioneering experience.” The Thomas’s only responsibilities were to hold the lead rope of their four-legged friends, walk at a normal pace, and speak sweetly with them.
“The llamas were amazingly agile,” says Sue. “They navigated their way over, around, under and in between fallen branches, tangles in the woods, and through running water. The animals seemed to talk among themselves with throaty hums and purrs.”
It was a memorable trip, one that Sue and Mark are anxious to repeat.
As Education Chairperson for the Onondaga Chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club, Lucy Hawkins scheduled a llama trek for her group in the summer of 2010. “Although there had been a hard rain the night before, the llamas had no problem crossing strong-running creeks, even with our folks as the unfamiliar handlers,” she said.
The club plans another outing at Woodmansee this spring or summer.
Erin Stull came across a Life in the Finger Lakes advertisement for Woodmansee Farms while sitting in a spa waiting room. “My husband Craig loves llamas and his birthday was coming up, so I got very excited and booked a trek as a special gift.”
The Stulls drove from Rochester to Tully with Craig having no idea where they were headed – or why. “What a birthday surprise,” said Craig. “I never saw it coming! The llamas were fascinating, and the Bishops were great – fun, friendly, and informative.”
Erin remembers a special dessert decorated with candles that Dawn prepared for the occasion. “A treat, we devoured it at the base of an amazing waterfall.”
All seem to agree that a trip to rustic Woodmansee Farms offers a unique opportunity to absorb the best of the Finger Lakes landscape in an extraordinary way. The trek season runs from mid-May until October. Detailed information is available on the Bishops’ website, www.woodmanseellamas.com.
The woods are beckoning. The waterfalls are calling. Have you been hiking with a llama lately?
by James P. Hughes